We need urgent action to combat the discrimination women face in the workplace. The coronavirus pandemic has shone a stark light on the deep structural inequalities which cut across our country and the labour market – and women have been disproportionately affected.
Women have borne the brunt of meeting rising care needs, have been at increased risk of domestic abuse; have faced restrictions accessing sexual health and family planning services; and are more likely to have been affected by job losses. Women whose lives are also shaped by other aspects of their identity – working-class women, women who are Black, disabled, LBT+ and those in insecure and low-paid jobs – have been particularly hard hit.
The pandemic has highlighted the endemic low pay and occupational segregation faced by many women workers, particularly those in vital frontline jobs including social care and retail. Nearly two-thirds of the UK’s 9.8 million key workers are women. Women kept the healthcare system and our country moving as the pandemic hit its peak. And 2.6 million of these women key workers earned less than £10 an hour.
It is no secret that the UK has one of the worst gender pay gaps in Europe. Women effectively work for free for two months a year and whilst companies publishing information on their gender pay gaps is a small step in the right direction it is nowhere near enough. Women in the UK will only start to get paid properly when we have better-paid, part-time and flexible jobs with higher wages in key sectors like social care.
But this issue is about more than just money. Violence against women and girls is rooted in structural inequalities and power imbalances between men and women. Intersecting inequalities also compound the threat of violence women face.
Sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women have continued to occur on streets, in workplaces, in public spaces and online. Lockdown and enforced home working have also shaped women’s experiences of sexual harassment at work, with harassment via emails and virtual meetings increasing. Yet reported instances of sexual harassment at work fall way short of showing its true prevalence. Labour and the trade union movement must lead on campaigning for safer workplaces free from violence and harassment.
Women’s work is often concentrated in sectors which were shut down by coronavirus restrictions such as beauty, arts, hospitality and leisure. But the government’s plans for economic recovery focused investment in male-dominated sectors such as construction. Women, on the other hand, were prevented from a return to work as vital services and support were unavailable.
The government failed in its duty to consider the needs of and impact on women when developing policy. Too often during the pandemic, equality was an afterthought, if not completely forgotten, with equality impact assessments glaringly absent.
Where the government has failed, Labour must be brave. It must start by tackling the structural inequality faced by women. Bold policy moves should include fixing our broken parental leave system, giving all parents 10 days paid parental leave, scrapping the qualifying threshold for statutory sick pay and ensuring no worker is excluded from accessing vital financial support.
Investing in a care-led recovery would create 2.7 times as many jobs as the same investment in construction: 6.3 as many for women and 10 per cent more for men.
Giving care workers a pay rise to the real living wage would create 2 million jobs, increasing overall employment rates by 5 per cent and decreasing the gender employment gap by 4 per cent. There must be a recognition too of the vital infrastructure role the childcare sector plays and invest in it accordingly. And we should also seize the opportunity to address occupational segregation by making high-quality jobs in the green economy genuinely accessible to everyone.
Labour must prioritise the safety of women at work and in society by reversing cuts to public services and enhanced training on preventing and responding to violence against women. We need long-term funding to provide specialised services for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence and a cross-departmental action plan to tackle the structural inequalities in work, health, education, housing and justice.
There are many wider changes too. Labour must tackle gender pay gaps and extend this work to include ethnicity and disability pay gaps. We need new mandatory requirements on employers to report on pay gaps alongside action plans focusing to address the causes of these gaps. And genuine flexible working must become a day one right to have, for everyone.
The government’s mishandling of the pandemic has failed to promote equality, and too often has further undermined it. But a fairer economy will also be a stronger one. By organising on the ground, and forcing government to act, we must not rest until equality has been achieved for everyone. The pandemic has shown the scale of structural inequality women face, and the case for change is stronger than ever. In order to build back better, we need to build back fairer and equality must be at the heart of any roadmap out of the pandemic.